Thanks to the awful things its cast members have said, Big Brother has gotten an inordinate amount of attention this summer, here and elsewhere. That’s unfortunate; while the format has potential, the execution is continually mediocre.
But there’s a lot of high-quality TV on right now, too, and those shows deserve positive attention. Nearly all of the shows on this list are brand-new shows, and they’ve all engaged and surprised me. In an era when over-produced, badly acted, even scripted shows are passed off as “reality,” these are a reminder that real life and producers’ craft can come together to create entertaining TV.
- The Freshman Class, Cooking Channel, Mondays at 10:30. This is the kind of series I wish Food Network–no, all cable networks–would air. It follows four students at the Louisiana Culinary Institute, and it’s incredibly compelling. The series is basically a documentary, filming people who would be doing this anyway even if cameras weren’t there, but it’s not at all boring, because it’s well-edited and well-produced. The four students producers chose to follow are immediately likable, from the war veteran suffering from PTSD to the middle-aged mother with an unsupportive husband, and you want to experience this journey with them. Watch it. (The first episode is free on the network’s web site.)
- 72 Hours, TNT, Fridays at 10. This series isn’t super-innovative, but it does improve on the shows that have come before it. Three teams of three strangers have 72 hours to navigate spectacular terrain, and the first to reach a briefcase wins $100,000. Each episode takes place in a different spectacular place around the world (watch on Amazon or on iTunes), and the drama comes from the cast members’ personalities and their choices, which mostly involve routes and supplies. Strangers being forced to work together creates an interesting dynamic, especially when someone may quit, ruining the others’ chance at winning about $33,000. There is bickering and annoying behavior, but that emerges organically and also is usually resolved in a way that tells us more about the cast. The cinematography isn’t quite to the level of The Amazing Race, and the host is no Phil Keoghan, but besides that, it’s everything the race should be–especially since it actually develops its characters. And while the ABC series Expedition Impossible, which was pretty similar, dragged and dragged, 72 Hours gets through its time and cast in a single, watchable episode.
- Naked and Afraid, Discovery, Sundays at 9 and 10. Stranding two people for 21 days with no water, food, tools, or clothes is no joke, and the hard-core survivalists cast on this show face real challenges, even if they are being filmed for a TV show. First, the series doesn’t shy away from nudity–at least not when the cast members are filmed from behind. It also breaks the fourth wall to acknowledge that they are being filmed by a small crew that intervenes if necessary, such as for medical emergencies. That 21 days are compressed into a single episode makes for a quick, compelling hour, focusing on only the most dramatic and interesting moments. The narrator is annoying and too intense, but the contestants are obviously facing brutally real challenges.
- Whodunnit?, ABC, Sundays at 9. This is a show that’s fun even beyond the fact that people think it’s actually killing its contestants. Yes, it doesn’t quite get near The Mole‘s level of greatness, but carves out its own interesting niche in the competition reality genre. And now that clear alliances have formed, the strategy part of the game has gotten more interesting. Each hour is essentially a standalone episode, so if you’ve missed it, you can tune in without having to catch up.
- Top Shot, History, Wednesdays at 10; Top Hooker, Animal Planet, Sundays at 10. Both of these Pilgrim-produced competitions test the skills of talented people in both creative and straightforward ways, and you don’t have to know anything about guns or fishing (I sure as hell don’t) to be entertained by the challenges.